A back-up copy of the first Russian Sputnik satellite (R) and a small replica of the second Russian satellite. (Photo: EPA)

Fifty-five years ago, America got a huge shock. The Soviets beat us to space with the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. Instead of curling up in a corner and wondering if it meant the end of America’s era of dominance, the leaders of the United States began a national effort to ensure we never got beaten again.

This effort overhauled America’s education model, pumped money into various high-tech programs and research, and quite simply reinvigorated America. The nation’s leaders understood that even the “big guy” will take a hit now and then. The difference between then and now is that they took it as a clarion call to action, not a playing of taps at a funeral.

What Sputniks do we face today? There are several. In the cyber world, Russia, China, and even Iran are growing in sophistication, mass, and motivation. Criminals are pillaging American intellectual property and using our own research against us. Several nations (particularly China) are challenging U.S. naval dominance, and others are growing more aggressive on land in asymmetrical engagements. Proliferation of all sorts (primarily nuclear, chemical, and biological) is spreading, and with it the potential threat to our friends and our homeland.

How are we responding? This Administration seems content in allowing American exceptionalism to become an anachronism. They are okay with leading from behind and simply saying that we need to use soft power. Exceptionalism does not spring from birth or special position; exceptionalism comes from hard work and the willingness to sacrifice more than the other guy.

Today, America can respond to these “Sputnik” challenges either by rolling up the mat and accepting decline, or by pushing back and refusing to go quietly. One hopes our leaders choose the latter.

America needs to rebuild its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education programs and again lead the world in tech and science. It needs to unleash the full potential of its private sector, unencumbered by new (and many of the old) government regulations. America invented cyber; it should dominate it as well.

Cutting the defense budget in a misguided attempt to finance more and growing entitlements is an economically losing proposition. It also guts American security readiness and lessens its influence in the world. Today’s global environment is more dangerous today, not less, and investments in security readiness are not wasteful but are wise.

It does not matter if the threat comes from a near-peer nation-state competitor, a rogue nation, a radical terrorist group, or a growing criminal syndicate—America must be able to track, deter, and, if necessary, defeat any action that threatens its people or interests.

The world is filled with bullies and bad guys. America needs to be the one guy on the block with whom they do not trifle. The leadership of America must once again face the challenge of Sputnik and not shrink, but step forward.